Cameo Appearances: Aesthetics and Gender in Middlemarch
In recent times, the covert yet insistent relation between aesthetics and political economy has claimed significant critical focus, for these two discourses have implicated and complicated each other in puzzling ways.1 In offering some background to this perplexing relation, Mary Poovey has traced the modern history of aesthetics and political economy to a common origin within the eighteenthcentury field of moral philosophy.2 As a study in search of cultural cohesion, moral philosophy drew together a wide-ranging set of critiques including ethics, aesthetics, economics, and government. Then, in the second half of the eighteenth century, the field branched, Poovey tells us, shaping new categories of knowledge through such works as Edmund Burke’s Enquiry (1757) on aesthetics and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776) on political economy. As these divisions in knowledge became further refined through discursive practice in the Victorian Age, aesthetics and political economy appeared to have little to do with each other; however, Poovey argues that “one way to remember the originary relationship between these two discourses-and to measure the toll exacted by their divisionis to tease from each its past and present entanglements with gender.”3 I take up her call by examining the relation between aesthetics and political economy, as they inscribe their mediations on gender roles in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. While I note that differing gender roles attach themselves to images of specific jewelry
1 I consider “aesthetics” and “political economy” to function as systems of meaning circulating in Victorian culture and refer here to the notion often formulated as “aesthetic ideology,” which has occasioned criticism by Eagleton, Levine, de Man, and Redfield, for example. The political effects of Victorian economic practices on gender have been discussed by Armstrong and Poovey. Discussion of the culture interpreted through the economic commodity can be found in writings by Appadurai, Richards, Nunokawa, and Miller, for example.